Community honors George Floyd; rally comments, graffiti strike a nerve

BAR HARBOR — The national furor over the death of a Minneapolis man at the hands of police surfaced here this weekend when an anti-police epithet was spray painted on downtown buildings Saturday night and some of the speakers at a Sunday rally criticized police in a way that some felt crossed a line.

“Us and everyone else in the country are going through a really hard time right now,” Police Chief Jim Willis said Monday. “We understand that, we understand that people need to do what they need to do, and we certainly don’t want to discourage any of that. We work hard at building our relationships, and I think it helps get us through troubled times.”

George Floyd of Minneapolis died in police custody last Monday. The four officers who were present were fired from the department and on Friday one was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Indivisible MDI organized a small local vigil Friday. “This week, Americans watched a 10-minute video in which we witnessed police officers murdering Minnesotan George Floyd in broad daylight as he begged them to stop, and onlookers pled with the officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck,” the group said in a statement.

Organizers of both that event and a rally Sunday afternoon said demonstrations of solidarity should be accompanied by meaningful action.

“Although we pride ourselves on caring about these issues, we do very little to make systemic, meaningful change,” said Alex Burnett, a Mount Desert Island High School student who organized the Sunday rally.

The plan for the event came together quickly, he said. “On Saturday, I realized that we needed to show solidarity and be there for Black people and people of color in our community.”

There wasn’t time to line up planned speeches; he put an announcement on social media Saturday saying that the gathering would be held Sunday at 4 p.m. in the Village Green, and that everyone should wear masks.

Meanwhile, Saturday night, the graffiti appeared on the side of a toy store near the police station, and on buildings at the town athletic fields on Main Street. By Monday, it had all already been cleaned and painted over.

“As far as who did it, what I can say it it’s under investigation,” Willis said. Anyone with information related to the incident is encouraged to contact the police department.

Gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited under the current state rules aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus; Saturday’s rally easily topped that, but almost all participants were wearing masks and made efforts to leave a safe distance between groups.

At the rally, Burnett said, “a couple people volunteered to speak, and after they spoke, I offered the mic to anybody who wanted to.”

Comments from a recent MDI High School graduate who has been living in Portland critical of police sparked some attendees to leave. Other speakers stood up for local police; many others have emailed or called the police department, or left gifts or meals, to express their support, Willis said.

“The graffiti sucks, nobody likes to see that,” resident Bo Greene, who spoke at the rally, told the Islander Monday. “But to focus more on the graffiti than on the murder that we all watched at the hands of someone in blue, I think is a mistake.

“I would jump in front of a train for Dave (Lt. Dave Kerns), and other officers, and I know they would for me,” she continued. “I can appreciate them for everything they do and still challenge them to stand up” and denounce police brutality. “And that’s what I do with the ones that I’m closest with.”

Burnett said the microphone was offered to anyone who wanted to speak.

“A lot of people spoke, most of them white,” he said. “Although I am super grateful for everyone who spoke, it’s necessary that, as white people, we amplify the voices of those who are marginalized. As a community we need to decentralize the white narrative and put our energy into giving power and space to Black people in our community.”

“Every white person has a responsibility to seek out resources to help them understand, recognize, and learn about the racism within themselves and built into the fabric of our society. The resources and materials are there; it is our responsibility to act and learn.

“Read books by black authors,” he continued. “Watch movies by black directors. Support black artists. Do your research and educate yourself, your friends, your family. Talk to your white peers. Redistribute our wealth; instead of buying from Amazon, buy from a black-owned business.

“There is so much we can and must do. Black people have been doing this work since the very beginning. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves on how to take down systemic racism in this country. We do that by learning from, and listening to, black communities.”

Another demonstration is in the planning stages sometime in the next two weeks, Burnett said.

Willis recalled hearing a story from a police chief who had had an officer-involved shooting at his agency many years ago.

“I remember him saying that he had to stand up in front of the community and say, ‘This is going to take your patience and trust, but we’re going to look into it.’

“And he said, ‘The key to the whole thing was when people believed me.’ And it worked out and it diffused the negative energy.

“I think we have that here” on Mount Desert Island, Willis said. “I sure hope we do. If people are feeling otherwise, I’d encourage them to give us a call so we can get together and understand each other and move forward.”

Liz Graves

Liz is an award-winning journalist who has been with the Islander since 2013. She grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor. [email protected]

Liz Graves

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The Local and National Music Industry Participates in #TheShowMustBePaused in Observation of Black Lives Matter

Since the killing of George Floyd over Memorial Day Weekend by Minneapolis Police on May 25, some companies in the music industry have responded by saying they will observe “Black Out Tuesday” or #TheShowMustBePaused this Tuesday, June 2. Business for participating companies or artists will stop on this day to commemorate the Black Lives Matter protests and call attention to the enormous role black musicians and artists have played in the music industry. As of June 1, Live Nation, Sony, Columbia Records, Capitol Records, Warner Records and TikTok have announced they will participate, among others.

#TheShowMustBePaused was created by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang, black women who are executives in the music business and call on the industry that has “profited predominantly from Black art” to take a stand.

“It is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the Black communities that have made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent,” said Thomas and Agyemang in a statement on their official website.

Artists and companies are participating in different ways — some postponing music releases, others promising to communicate with their coworkers —  with the same goal of taking time away from production to focus on community.

As of Monday, June 1, some Denver groups and organizations have joined the movement. iZCALLi announced on their Instagram page they will participate in Black Out Tuesday, as well as Unsigned Unheard – 5280 , and the Fillmore Auditorium, that shared Live Nation’s promise to take June 2 to “work together with our employees and colleagues on actionable next steps that will continue to engage and spark consistent action in fighting racism.” Gabriel Mervine and his band cancelled their online performance at Dazzle Presents June 2, and The Bluebird Theatre also released a statement.

It is likely Black Out Tuesday will extend throughout the week and weeks to come as more artists and businesses join the movement. Interested musicians, fans or music lovers can learn more  here at #TheShowMustBePaused’s website. 

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The Music Business Is Holding a ‘Blackout.’ But No One…

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As cities and industries react to the killing of George Floyd and other black victims of police brutality, artists, executives, and companies from across the music business will participate in a day of silent protest — though a lack of clear messaging from the major labels makes its meaning open for interpretation.

Organizers of the planned June 2nd event asked the industry to “not conduct business as usual” and instead spend time reflecting on how to support the black community. The original statement was posted toward the end of last week and quickly gained momentum over the weekend. By the end of the weekend, the three music majors Warner Music Group, Sony Music, and Universal Music Group had all pledged support alongside many of their flagship labels, though others in the industry expressed confusion at the message’s intent.

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“Your black executives, artists, managers, staff, colleagues are drained, traumatized, hurt, scared, and angry,” Jamila Thomas, Senior Director of Marketing at Atlantic Records, wrote in a statement to music industry colleagues on Instagram on Friday, co-launching a hashtag called #TheShowMustBePaused and labeling the day Blackout Tuesday.

Thomas and her partner in the initiative, former Atlantic Records employee Brianna Agyemang, made a formal call to action, asking those who work in music, entertainment, and show businesses to “pause” on Tuesday because “the show can’t just go on, as our people are being hunted and killed.”

“#Theshowmustbepaused is an initiative created by two black women in music in observance of the long-standing racism and inequality that exist from the boardroom to the boulevard,” the duo wrote. “Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations and their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of black people accountable. To that end, it is the obligation of these entities to protect and empower the black communities that I’ve made them disproportionately wealthy in ways that are measurable and transparent.”

“I don’t want to sit on your Zoom calls talking about the black artists who are making you so much money, if you fail to address what’s happening to black people right now,” Thomas wrote. “That’s the only ‘rollout plan’ I want to discuss. And it’s not solely on the ‘urban department,’ Black label heads, Black Presidents, & black employees to navigate. Your silence is noted.”

Columbia Records was one of the first labels to publicly issue a statement independent of Thomas and Agyemang’s initiative. “We stand together with the Black community against all forms of racism, bigotry and violence,” the label wrote. “Now, more than ever we must raise our voices to speak up and challenge the injustices all around us.”

A flurry of social media posts from record labels and other industry employees soon followed. Some labels advised specific actions. Interscope announced that the company would “contribute” to organizations that are focused on bailing out protestors “exercising their right to peacefully assemble” and aiding lawyers in the fight for judicial changes, and that it would help non-profits working towards “economic empowerment in the Black community.” (A rep for Universal Music Group, Interscope’s parent company, did not reply to a request for comment or clarification on how much the label would contribute.) Interscope, which promised to not release any new music during the week of June 1st, also suggested that their followers text “FLOYD” to 55156 to voice opinions against police violence and/or donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, as well as look into Color of Change, Winning Justice, and the ACLU.

Capitol Records said it will make a donation to Color of Change, which wants to “end practices that unfairly hold Black people back, and champion solutions that move us all forward.” Both Atlantic and Warner Records encouraged followers to text “FLOYD” to 55156, add their names to the Justice for George Floyd petition at change.org, and donate to the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund.

While Epic, Columbia, and Republic were among those who shared that their teams would proudly recognize Blackout Tuesday, the labels did not publicly provide any sort of instructions or calls to action. Columbia pushed that Tuesday was “not a day off” and was, instead, a day to “reflect and figure out ways to move forward in solidarity” — echoing the words of Rob Stringer, CEO of its parent company Sony.

“Many of you have phoned or emailed me to discuss what we can say or do as a company in reaction. We are obviously going to respond but actions are louder than words,” Stringer wrote in a memo to employees. “In the short term, we will be rolling out a company donation policy to relevant organizations and causes throughout this week. As a company, we will observe Blackout Tuesday. However, we are still determining the best ways to approach Tuesday. It should not just be a day off as it needs to be more meaningful than that.” (A rep for Sony declined further comment.)

“Everyone can take a day out from their jobs,” Warner Music CEO Steve Cooper wrote in a memo. “Please use this time to concentrate on helping yourself and others – whether that’s dealing with your own feelings, supporting your friends and colleagues, or taking action.” (A rep for Warner Music declined further comment.)

“We strongly support protest initiatives such as Blackout Tuesday and other valuable and heartfelt non-violent protests,” Universal Music CEO Lucian Grainge said in a staff memo. “But, as we know, protest is just a start, not a solution. Real and constructive change — lasting change — requires sustained focus and unwavering commitment over time.”

“There’s a massive movement going on in the country right now. Why are they starting their own branded movement?” – Joe Steinhardt, Don Giovanni Records

While Grainge laid out some initiatives, including the formation of a “UMG Task Force to accelerate our efforts in areas such as inclusion and social justice,” multiple employees across the music industry expressed confusion on their respective company’s goals for Tuesday, while critics assailed the lack of a specific call to action.

Joe Steinhardt, owner of Don Giovanni Records and a teacher at Drexel University, tells Rolling Stone — from the scene of a protest in Philadelphia on Monday — that he believes the movement is an “ignorant and misguided way” to protest, adding that what the labels should be doing is supporting the already existing efforts and initiatives that had been active such as Black Lives Matter.

“Everyone at their fucking offices should clear out anonymously, not as a promotional effort, not with your Sony logo at the bottom of it; get in the streets,” Steinhardt says. “I’m in the streets; most of my artists are in the streets. Anyone who can should anonymously be joining the movement. There’s a massive movement going on in the country right now. Why are they starting their own branded movement?”

“They’ll donate money, but where is that coming from? Their artists,” Steinhardt adds. “How about you make your business makeup reflect this issue, who works in your buildings? Who’s included? We can all laugh at the NFL [statement] yesterday, but the music industry has been just as laughable. What the fuck is a cultural blackout? Culture is what Donald Trump goes to censor. Why are we self-censoring?”

Jessi Frick, founder of fellow indie label Father/Daughter Records, tells Rolling Stone her label won’t be taking part in the day because of the lack of clarity from major labels who’d initially shared the message, adding that her label had already paused promotion on music since last week in light of the protests and would be speaking with other indie labels to discuss more strategies and initiatives to contribute.

Thomas and Agyemang did not reply to requests for comment. As such, it’s unclear where the ideas between the duo’s original intentions and the messaging from the major labels coalesce.

“The music industry shutdown thing feels tone deaf to me” – Bon Iver

“[Thomas and Agyemang] put up their site with way more information than any of these major labels shared in their instagram posts,” Frick says. “The way those posts read to me made me think, ‘Read the room.’ The way it was first put out there wasn’t something I wanted to participate in; getting offline didn’t seem right. If you have a platform and you’re able to get information out, you should use that. Most of these labels have been profiting off the backs of black musicians from the very start, and this just felt like something they should be doing all the time, not just when there’s pressure on them to do so.”

Although appreciative of the industry-wide anger towards injustice and police brutality, Chris Anokute, former SVP of A&R at Island Def Jam who now runs the artist development company Young Forever, expressed that the movement should not end at trending topics and hashtags. “This is not a copy and paste, using the same language and/or words that I see on every corporate post over the last few days,” Anokute wrote. “And all due respect, but black people and most people who care in your organizations have been DISCONNECTED all week from business as usual, so don’t placate us with one fucking day! We are pissed off.”

“I want to commend whoever the individual(s) are that came up with ‘BLACKOUT Tuesday.’ We appreciate you and respect your leadership. I stand with you, behind you, in front of you, wherever I need to be,” Anokute wrote on Instagram. But, “I honestly don’t know what Blackout Tuesday is, so I can’t observe something until I know its origin, who it came from, where it came from, so I know its real intention,” Anokute adds to Rolling Stone. “I can’t take someone’s word for it. That’s the problem today.”

Bon Iver, one of the only artists to speak against the movement, wrote on Twitter that “the music industry shutdown thing feels tone deaf to me” and asked followers to “participate in our actual world.”

Outside of the #TheShowMustBePaused plan for June 2nd, several figures in the music industry have written to political leaders in response to the George Floyd police killing. Last week, music attorney and artist advocate Dina LaPolt sent a letter to the Hennepin County Attorney, copying Congressmember Karen Bass — chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus — Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and record executive and host of the Wrongful Conviction podcast Jason Flom. In it, they demand that the officers involved in the death of Floyd be immediately arrested and charged with first degree murder.

“While the swift action of Mayor Jacob Frey is a necessary first step, I expect and demand that these officers are arrested, charged, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Anything less would constitute a serious miscarriage of justice,” LaPolt wrote. “This is another example of another unarmed African American man killed in police custody, while Americans are left with no confidence that justice will be served. George, his family, the black community, and the American people deserve better.”

Sources close to Tuesday’s plan say more initiatives from the industry are on the way and will be announced shortly.

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Citywide lighting begins Monday night to recognize festivals canceled due to COVID-19

MILWAUKEE — Buildings throughout downtown Milwaukee will recognize cultural groups whose annual festivals have been canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis with the #MKEitShine campaign.

Milwaukee Downtown, BID #21 is encouraging buildings and landmarks to illuminate their facades with colors representing each cultural festival during its originally scheduled festival dates. Patriotic colors will be encouraged citywide to welcome visitors during the rescheduled dates of the Democratic National Convention.

Beginning Monday evening, June 1, 600 EAST Wisconsin, 833 East Michigan, Discovery World, Fiserv Forum, Gas Light Building, Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown, Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, Lakefront Brewery, MGIC, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee County Historical Society, Milwaukee County Parks Mitchell Park Domes, Northwestern Mutual, The Pfister Hotel, Schlitz Park (#MilwaukeeFamous sign), SpringHill Suites by Marriott (when reopened) and U.S. Bank Center will be lit in a rainbow of colors to salute PrideFest.

WHEN:          

  • PrideFest: June 1 – 7 (colors: rainbow)
  • Polish Fest: June 12 – 14 (colors: red and white)
  • 3rd of July Fireworks: July 3 – 5 (colors: red, white and blue)
  • Bastille Days: July 9 – 12 (colors: red, white and blue)
  • Festa Italiana: July 17 – 19 (colors: green, white and red)
  • German Fest: July 24 – 26 (colors: black, red and gold)
  • Black Arts Festival: Aug. 1 (colors: blue, red, yellow and green)
  • Democratic National Convention: Aug. 10 – 20 (colors: red, white and blue)
  • Mexican Fiesta: Aug. 21 – 23 (colors: green, white and red)
  • Irish Fest: Aug. 28 – 30 (colors: green, white and orange)

WHERE:       

  • 600 EAST Wisconsin
  • 833 East Michigan
  • Discovery World
  • Fiserv Forum
  • Gas Light Building
  • Hyatt Place Milwaukee Downtown
  • Hyatt Regency Milwaukee
  • Lakefront Brewery
  • MGIC
  • Milwaukee Art Museum
  • Milwaukee County Historical Society
  • Milwaukee County Parks Mitchell Park Domes (will only be lit on Saturdays and Sundays)
  • Northwestern Mutual
  • The Pfister Hotel
  • Schlitz Park (#MilwaukeeFamous sign)
  • SpringHill Suites by Marriott (when reopened)
  • U.S. Bank Center
43.038902 -87.906474

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Heat Check: ‘Black Joy Is Radical’

Nubya Garcia’s latest single “Pace” is all about diving into the many layers of joy. Adama Jalloh/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Adama Jalloh/Courtesy of the artist

Nubya Garcia’s latest single “Pace” is all about diving into the many layers of joy.

Adama Jalloh/Courtesy of the artist

If you saw the first Heat Check Live on NPR Music’s Instagram this past weekend, you rocked with us for a live DJ set of all your favorite new songs. Afterward, New York-based artist Linda Diaz, whose work has been featured on Heat Check before, reminded us why we create spaces for the playlist to exist: “Community is invaluable. Black joy is radical,” she wrote.

With the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery erupting into protests across the country and the world against racism and police brutality, the joy of being Black has felt stolen and replaced with the reality of being Black.

Heat Check cosigns many artists of color, specifically Black artists, whose music stands out so much that it doesn’t deign to fit in anywhere else. This playlist expresses all emotions and gives reason to rhyme.

To celebrate radical Black joy in a time of great pain, here’s a round-up of new tracks from the worlds of jazz, R&B and rap, all to remind you that they can’t hijack happiness. Because we deserve it. Stream Heat Check in it’s entirety each week on Spotify.

Nubya Garcia, “Pace”

London-bred saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia has the kind of convincing panache listeners would just follow anywhere. The sonic peaks and valleys of “Pace,” Garcia’s latest single, do little to allow the listener to nestle into a groove for too long — it goes from mellow, warm and spongy to hurried and hectic. For Garcia, this composition is all about diving into the many layers of joy.

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Savannah Cristina, “Comfortable”

Even when ease feels hard to come by and even harder to maintain, Savannah Christina’s “Comfortable” cradles and confides in a few moments of balance. There’s power in letting the walls down.

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KeiyaA, “Hvnli”

I’ll admit I’ve had KeiyaA’s Forever, Ya Girl marinating on my personal playlist for a while, but haven’t focused in enough to pinpoint which of the 16 tracks really send me soaring. Much like the recent masterpieces by Solange (A Seat At the Table) or Kamasi Washington (The Epic), KeiyaA’s album colors outside the lines and humbly shines light on the nooks and crannies of Black existence.

If I have to pick one track as a primer to this project, the warbling keys and billowing melodies on “Hvnli” is a great start.

And my soul loves carelessly / My God’s always there for me (Heavenly) / And my love is heavenly (Heavenly).

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Caleb Giles, “Diamonds”

With range, perspective and a conviction behind his cadence, Caleb Giles has the ability to usher in a Renaissance of New York rap. As he spells out on “Diamonds,” even with serpents in his garden now, the Bronx emcee prioritizes the months and years of harvest ahead.

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Lil Yachty and Tierra Whack, “T.D. (feat A$AP Rocky and Tyler, The Creator)”

Lil Yachty’s third studio album Lil Boat 3 docked this past week after weeks of hints and build up, officially completing the Atlanta rapper’s trilogy. Although the 19-track bounce house of sounds still hits in that jovial and disorienting fashion Yachty’s come to be known for, it’s Tierra Whack who gets the last laugh. Gliding over a sample of “Tokyo Drift” courtesy of The Teriyaki Boyz (yes, from The Fast and the Furious movie circa ’06), the Philly rapper easily takes the boys to the cleaners with her haywire wordplay.

“I did it all with the passion, I’m a god in this fashion / N****s tryna fit in with their arms in the jacket / Had to pull myself together like it’s all elastic.”

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TeaMarrr, “I’m That (feat. Rapsody)”

TeaMarrr and Rap don’t mince words with this one. Not in the slightest. With a growl and a grin, the Boston-born artist flips relationship roles and assumes the power position on both sides.

“I lick my lips like LL Cool J / I play the game but it ain’t not 2K / Take a sip like, ‘Oh oh bay-bay’ / I’m smooth like rosé and I / Shoot it like Carmelo and I got that whine, Merlot / Red bellow, your booty sweet, come cuddle / My net worth Billy — Gates!”

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New York’s Public Theater Benefit, Drama Desk Awards…

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New York’s Public Theater has postponed its virtual event We Are One Public that was set to take place on June 1 in place of its annual live gala.

“In this time of national trauma, when the Covid crisis has so disproportionately impacted the Black community, when the injustices of our way of life have been made so clear, it just feels wrong for us to sail ahead with our event,” the theater’s statement says.

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We Are One Public was set to be hosted by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and directed by Kenny Leon. Honorees included Sam Waterston and Audrey and Zygi Wilf.

The list of presenters included Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Danielle Brooks, Glenn Close, Elvis Costello, Claire Danes, Danai Gurira, Anne Hathaway, Oscar Isaac, Nikki M. James, John Leguizamo, Audra McDonald and Sandra Oh.

The Public’s postponement came just a couple of hours after the 65th annual Drama Desk Awards on Sunday night was also called off and rescheduled for a later date.

“The Drama Desk celebrates all that’s outstanding in the work of New York’s diverse theater artists and craftspeople,” Drama Desk co-presidents Charles Wright and David Barbour said in a statement. “We regret the postponement of our awards ceremony tonight but, as an organization committed to the principle that all voices must be heard, we stand together with our black colleagues against the racial injustice and violence in our nation and city. We are grateful to Spectrum News NY1 for its comprehensive news coverage of this painful moment.”

The annual theater event was going to take place virtually. The awards, hosted by NY1’s Frank DeLella, were going to include appearances by James Corden, Beannie Feldstein, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone, Jane Krakowski, Andrew Rannells, Ali Stoker, Cynthia Nixon and Susan Stroman.

Read the Public Theater’s full statement below:

We have made the decision today to postpone our virtual event: We Are One Public which was scheduled for tomorrow night, June 1. In this time of national trauma, when the Covid crisis has so disproportionately impacted the Black community, when the injustices of our way of life have been made so clear, it just feels wrong for us to sail ahead with our event. We deeply believe in our theater, and in the importance of the work we do, but this is not the moment to focus on the Public. This is a time for mourning and reflection. Kenny Leon, our board member and the director of this event, and Oskar will release a brief video message on our website at 8pm on Monday.

The murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor have demonstrated in horrific fashion the racism upon which our country was built. We mourn the loss of these Black men and women, and are grieved and outraged by their deaths. The Public was founded as a theater by, for and of the people, yet it has taken us far too long to proclaim the simple truth: Black Lives Matter. We must stand in solidarity with Black artists, Black staff members, and the Black community. We must do more, much more, to fight the racism that infects every institution in the country, the Public included. We must recognize that the Public itself must change, if we wish to live up to our own ideals. If “We Are One Public,” then the pain and oppression being visited on the Black community must also be our pain. Out of this crucible we will all either become better or become worse. The Public is determined to be on the side that fights racism and inequality manifested inside and outside of our walls. We will release a fuller statement of accountabilities and actions in the coming days. Words matter, but not as much as actions. We will hold ourselves accountable, and if you feel we are falling short, we will listen.

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Howard University’s Virtual Exhibitions Widen Access to the Art World

2020HU Art Faculty Exhibition59,Screenshot By Miriam Ahmed(1)Howard University’s virtual 50th Faculty ExhibitionCourtesy of Miriam Ahmed

On May 9, Howard University’s 50th annual art faculty exhibition opened—but unlike in past years, this installation was unveiled online. It runs to the end of July.

The curator of 50th Faculty Exhibition, Miriam Ahmed, a lecturer in graphic design at the university, explains that user experience was their primary consideration in creating the 3D virtual display with Kunstmatrix’s augmented reality tools.

The virtual format is creating more opportunities to engage with audiences: Faculty publications are highlighted in the virtual exhibition, which is not typically done in a physical gallery space. The department is hosting artists’ talks online every Wednesday at 11 a.m., from May 20 to July 22. During each talk, they’ll release a hint for a scavenger hunt, and announce a winner at the end of July. The first clue is bison, Howard University’s mascot. Attendees are challenged to click through the exhibition, look at each artwork, and count the bison. Details like arrows on the floor guide viewers through the space. 

Alongside the faculty exhibition is the Annual Art Graduates Exhibition. The virtual installation of graduating students’ artwork was curated by Alexander T. McSwain, an assistant professor in the art department and coordinator of Howard’s electronic studio, which covers user interface design, augmented and virtual reality, 2D and 3D animation, special effects, product design, and motion graphics.

These exhibitions are making art and arts education more accessible.

“Our department has always had social impact in our mission, ever since we started in 1921,” Ahmed says. “And that was long before social impact were buzzwords.”

She relates the innovation of the digital displays to the art department’s long history of being on the cutting edge of African American art, with professors who were major players in the black arts movement, like Akili Ron Anderson and James Phillips.

McSwain and Ahmed spoke with City Paper about these projects came together and the lasting influence they think the virtual realm might have on the greater art community. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Washington City Paper: How did you decide to make these exhibitions digital?

Alexander T. McSwain: Going digital was almost an instant thought … so it was really more so about us figuring out how.

WCP: How long did it take to design and complete both exhibitions?

Miriam Ahmed: We called for exhibitions about two weeks before, so [that] gave faculty and students about two weeks to submit their work. And then we did about a 24-hour sprint when we were just processing the submissions. And then I think we put up the exhibitions in about three days. We wanted to launch on commencement, so that’s why we made sure to do everything in that timeframe.

WCP: Did the artists take the photographs of their work?

MA: They did actually—they did a pretty good job photographing their work, I think. It was a challenge, definitely, to try to get people to photograph with proper lighting and proper perspectives from home when they don’t have a studio setup, but everyone did a phenomenal job getting work that was high quality.

WCP: With students at home, how has digital learning been in general?

AM: It’s been a challenge, more so because students having to leave campus so abruptly, going home, they might not have a computer that works. You know, technical issues that come with them being at home, plus dealing with the actual virus itself. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been more of an overall positive experience for students. They’re still wanting to come to class. Still wanting to learn, even through this crisis.

MA: Our programs [the graphic design and electronic studio program] quite often have guests who come into the classroom digitally via digital conferencing. I think it’s safe to say that, between Alex and I, we had a pretty seamless transition in terms of the delivery of the coursework. But the main challenges were making sure that the students had the facilities that they needed where they went to, and then dealing with the emotional and psychological impact of this whole pandemic.

WCP: How did students push through these difficulties?

MA: I have one particular student, when he went home, he didn’t have access to a computer. He just had his phone and his tablet. And all the libraries close by were shut down, so he didn’t have a space to go to where he could engage in the coursework. We were coding in HTML and CSS, which require a computer to do. So he wasn’t able to get access to that. So what he ended up doing was working on his tablet and hand coding. It’s impressive when someone says that they are able to hand code, but this guy was literally writing handwritten code on his tablet, which he got a lot of credit for in my class. That’s something that I wouldn’t expect.

WCP: How might this exhibition influence the greater art community?

AM: In terms of what the virtual gallery reality means in the wider scope: access and people being able to experience [art]. So, say next year, when all of this is over, does that mean that the virtual gallery goes away? I don’t think [so]. I think [a virtual gallery] will enhance future gallery openings to where we’ll be doing simultaneous openings, so that people who may not travel or can’t travel or someone in a whole different country can still experience our students’ work, and still in a gallery setting, but virtually. 

WCP: What new perspectives come out of this experience?

AM: I guess how important it is to be accessible—or for students to have access. Not necessarily wanting to switch fully online, but having a component. D.C. isn’t the cheapest place to live, so our education being more accessible to more people would only benefit the art world. You know, there’s a lot of artistic talent out there, but the financial or the fiscal responsibility might be preventing them from becoming an artist or really focusing on their art, so this kind of allows us to reach people where they are, versus them having to come to us to get an education. 

I’m hoping that other galleries do follow suit. Because it’d be a shame not to have a new opening during the summer because of COVID-19, versus other galleries being inspired to do a virtual gallery themselves.

MA: Traditionally, the arts don’t get as much attention. They’re not seen as valuable as the other fields, but hopefully through this exhibition we’ll show not just the art program, but Howard, we’re right there; we’re cutting edge. We’re critical to society and the community.

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THE FINAL CURTAIN: Dr. Vernell Lillie, founder of Kuntu Repertory Theater, dies at 89

by Renee P. Aldrich
For New Pittsburgh Courier
For more than 35 years, the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater was an institution in Pittsburgh. And it was Dr. Vernell Audrey Lillie who gave it the reputation of having a bold, brave look into the face of Black America… through theater.

In 2013, its 39th year, the Kuntu held its final season. Shortly after, Dr. Lillie relocated to Washington, D.C., where she would be closer to her daughters, Dr. Marsha (Hisani) Lillie-Blanton and Charisse R. Lillie.

On her 89th birthday, May 11, Dr. Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theater, passed away in her home in Sunrise Senior Living Facility, in D.C. She had suffered from dementia.

She undoubtedly left behind a legacy of love and passion for the arts, mentoring hundreds of individuals whose theatrical careers she helped launch, and garnering a reputation for demanding excellence driven by the motto: “No excuses” for getting it done.

Dr. Lillie received her B.A. in Speech and Drama from Dillard University in New Orleans. With credentials in hand, she returned to her hometown in Hempstead, Tex., married her childhood sweetheart, Richard L. “Dickie Boy” Lillie Jr., and began laying the groundwork for her distinguished 50-plus year career in theater by producing and directing local productions at Worthing and Wheatley high schools in Houston, Tex. Molding and creating outstanding performers started early in her career. According to her daughter, Hisani, “these productions featured outstanding student actors, whom she mentored with love and ferocity.”

The call for advancing her education beckoned her and she and her family came to Pittsburgh in 1969, where she enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University. She earned her Master of Arts in English in 1970 and her Doctorate in English in 1971.

By 1972 she was an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Africana Studies.

She had been planting little seeds of the legacy she would ultimately leave along the way, but the creation of the Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974 set things ablaze in terms of setting a standard for community the ater, impacting lives and providing opportunities for Black artists.

“The intent of the Kuntu Theater was to allow an examination of Black life from a sociopolitical-historical prospective,” her daughter, Hisani, told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “Though it was a University Theater, it was rooted in Pittsburgh’s Black community, and provided a supportive space for Black writers, including both Rob Penny and August Wilson, among countless other Pittsburgh artists.”

DR. VERNELL A. LILLIE founded the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974, as a premier platform for writer and Pitt associate professor Rob Penny. The two are shown in the photo at right, from 1975. In the center photo, Dr. Lillie died on her 89th birthday, May 11. (Photos courtesy University of Pittsburgh)

From 1999 to 2006, Eileen J. Morris was the managing director of the Kuntu Theater, alongside Dr. Lillie. Morris, currently the artistic director of the Ensemble Theater in Houston, had a relationship with Dr. Lillie before she recruited her to Pittsburgh.

“I am both honored and blessed to have been able to sit at her feet and to share our joint theatrical journeys,” Morris said. “I learned from Dr. Lillie and was strengthened in my tenacity and my work ethic—but as my fellow artists say, I, too, felt appreciated, special and made to feel I could do anything. She had that way of helping you to push yourself even harder to make a difference in the art you are attempting to create. Forever I’ll have that memory of her and gratitude in my heart for the time I spent with her in Pittsburgh.”

Some notable productions out of the Kuntu Theater were Dr. Lillie’s own, “The Buffalo Soldiers Plus One,” Penny’s “Little Willie Armstrong Jones” and “Good Black Don’t Crack,” Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Homecoming” and “Radio Golf.” Notably, “Homecoming” was the first play by Wilson to be produced by a resident company.

The writer and director of some-150 plays, she was highly respected by her peers, and along with numerous other awards and accolades, Dr. Lillie received the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. She was also an inductee into the prestigious Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania by then-Governor Tom Ridge.

Mark Clayton Southers, an early protege of Dr. Lillie, is the founder and artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, which is about to enter its 17th year in Pittsburgh.

“She was a pillar of our theatrical community, gave opportunities to multitudes of actors, designers and technicians who, in many cases, would never have been afforded the opportunity to advance in the field,” Southers told the Courier. “Her work through Kuntu has provided a communal space for long-lasting relationships to connect and flourish. My favorite quote of hers was, ‘I give because I have the capacity to.’ Doc has given so much over six decades as a producer and educator. She has left us a wonderful legacy through her Kuntu tradition.”

Dr. Lillie is shown with internationally-known actor Lamman Rucker, who was inspired by Dr. Lillie while Rucker was a student at Duquesne University.

Renee Sorrell was Kuntu’s production manager for many of the years Dr. Lillie led it. She shared with the Courier that she came to the Theater to pass out flyers with no knowledge or experience in the mechanics of theater. “I asked if I could help by passing out flyers; she gave me a script to read and told me I would do props. I was blindsided, but soon, she had taught me to be the production manager, scheduling productions, hiring technicians and sometimes teaching technicians. This is an example of how she would see more in people than they would see in themselves,” Sorrell said.

Dr. Lillie’s reach far exceeded Pittsburgh and was connected to a wide range of theater notables. According to the esteemed director, Woody King Jr., the founder and artistic director of New Federal Theater Company out of New York, “Dr. Lillie was extremely popular among individuals like Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen; she was connected in the literary world as well and had influence. She had called for me to come to Pittsburgh years ago to direct a play by Rob Penny, Nefetari Rising and while here she referred me to a magazine called ‘Shining Star’ to submit a short story I wrote, and encouraged the publisher to accept it. They did. When Dr. Lillie spoke, people listened.”

On the day of her death, local Rev. Deryck Tines and others put out a call to the theater community for all those interested to join on an online Zoom call at 9 p.m. to share what Dr. Lillie meant to them. In less than three hours, more than 70 people joined on the call, including the likes of Janet Sarbaugh, vice president, creativity at The Heinz Endowments, screen actors Lamman Rucker and Ben Cain, and Stephen McKinney, who played the role of Bono in “Fences,” recently filmed in Pittsburgh. The Zoom call went past midnight, the effort indeed a tangible demonstration of the high regard in which Dr. Lillie was held—in Pittsburgh, and beyond.

Rev. Tines, before the Zoom call ended, declared that as soon as it was doable, there should be an entire weekend dedicated to honoring the power, passion and accomplishments of Dr. Vernell Lillie.

DR. VERNELL A. LILLIE, second from right, founded the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974. Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, shown in various photos courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh, where she founded the Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974. I

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Living in Color creates space for queer artists of color through “collective imagining”

Students+from+the+class+of+2018+and+Ogwumike+formed+the+collective+in+2015.+They+hoped+to+connect+artists+of+color+on+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+campus+to+Chicago+influences%2C+exercising+autonomy+and+liberation+in+creating+an+art+alliance.+

Courtesy of Living in Color

Students from the class of 2018 and Ogwumike formed the collective in 2015. They hoped to connect artists of color on Northwestern’s campus to Chicago influences, exercising autonomy and liberation in creating an art alliance.

Living in Color is not just a student club or campus organization, but a “collective” — a political statement by Northwestern’s queer artists of color to defy by creation.

The decision to adopt such a distinction was intentional, LIC co-founder Jessica Ogwumike (Weinberg ‘19) said.

The alumna, who creates ceramic sculpture and poetry, said she views the group as an analogy to a community mutual aid. Artists of marginalized identities — especially black and brown artists — can use the collective to invest in each other and create a “base of power,” they said. This goes beyond traditionally white, heteronormative and ableist artistic norms.

“When we say the word ‘collective,’ there is an inherent political message that we’re sending there,” Ogwumike said.

Ogwumike emphasized that this message is tied to historical precedent, namely the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Students from the class of 2018 and Ogwumike formed the collective in 2015. They hoped to connect artists of color on Northwestern’s campus to Chicago influences, exercising autonomy and liberation in creating an art alliance.

Five years after its creation, LIC’s influence has permeated throughout the campus community, forging alliances between students and art mediums. One of the collective’s co-founders formed B. Burlesque, a dance interest group that promotes body and sex-positivity for students of color, as an off-shoot project that eventually became its own group. LIC also hosts a showcase at the end of every year to highlight art from members and artists of marginalized identities.

Last year, the collective hosted BLK GRL SANCTUARY, which celebrated black women and black femmes through performances, community building and food. The theme was inspired by events on campus at the time, such as the University’s refusal to remove visiting professor Satoshi Kanazawa for espousing racist views.

SESP junior Eliza Gonring, the current LIC president, said the collective continues to be a space to heal.

“It’s especially important to do this work through art,” Gonring said. “It’s a lot more sustainable on the body and your mental health because rather than trying to take systems down, you’re creating.”

On top of this, she added the group represents a redistribution of funds and resources in a capitalistic system such as a university. LIC’s Student-Prisoner Correspondence Night — in which students send letters and zines to incarcerated individuals — is one way to exchange the “wealth of knowledge” that exists both at Northwestern and in jails, she said. It also promotes the group’s fundamentally abolitionist stance against the prison system.

Ogwumike said Gonring and other successors of the collective have pioneered innovative ideas to serve Northwestern’s artistic community and perform outreach initiatives, keeping with the spirit of “collective imagining.”

Living in Color is truly for those who live in color, going beyond race, Ogwumike added. Through the collective, members think about disability, queerness and other social factors that influence the proliferation and regulation of art.

“It’s important to emphasize that when we say ‘color’ we aren’t only talking about race and ethnicity, we are talking also about queerness, talking about the ways differing abilities throughout our lives color our ability to exist,” Ogwumike said. “We challenged ourselves also to think about the ways in which our bodies in the art space are policed.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @yunkyomoonk

Related Stories:
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Living in Color’s showcase, BLK GRL SANCTUARY, gives a platform to student artists of color

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‘The Highwaymen’ Readies for Production, Concourse to Sell…

Published 4:58 pm EDT, Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Click here to read the full article.

“The Highwaymen,” about a group of African American artists in segregated 1960s Florida, is being readied to go into production, with casting underway. Curated By Media is packaging the project, with Concourse Media on board as sales agent. Todd Thompson directs from a script by Lucien Christian Adderley and Richard ‘Byrd’ Wilson.

Thompson previously directed the documentary “Woman in Motion,” which traces the drive – led by Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek” – to recruit African American, Asian and Latino folks to join NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. Adderley and Wilson are in their second season writing for OWN series “David Makes Man,” another Florida-set drama, created by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who won the adapted screenplay Academy Award with Barry Jenkins for “Moonlight.”

The film is based on the true story about a group of 25 young African American men and one African American woman, led by 19-year-old Alfred Hair, who produced distinctive artworks crafted from left-over construction material and house paint, “creating a distinctive, colorful style that captured the stormy clouds, windy waves, quiet marshes and deserted beaches of an undeveloped Florida that no longer exists,” according to a statement.

Traveling up and down Central Florida’s highways, they would hawk their paintings from the backs of cars for as little as $20 each, selling to motels, banks, doctor’s offices and tourists, eventually producing more than 200,000 works.

In the early 1990s, a curator and art journalist discovered their work in flea markets, antique shops and garage sales. On learning how their art was originally produced and sold, he named them “The Highwaymen.” Highwaymen art now adorns the walls of museums, governor mansions, and even the White House.

“The Highwaymen” will be produced by Thompson, Tim Franta, Kathryn Kelly and Joy Kigin under Thompson’s Stars North banner. Executive producers are Greg Galloway, Benjamin Crump, Lance Walker, Jr., Brigetta Crematta and Armando Crematta. Craig Fincannon and Lisa Mae Fincannon are casting.

“While our film’s story takes place during segregated times, it transcends racial divide and embodies the great, American dream,” said Thompson. “In the face of extreme obstacles, these artists captured Florida’s raw, natural beauty and created inspiration, meaning and purpose. I want the audience to experience their struggle but walk away feeling uplifted, enlightened and empowered.”

Adderley and Wilson said: “We’re excited to be part of this project because of our desire to tell Florida stories and take responsibility for getting them out there on a level that exposes the world to Black history in our home state. We see similarities between the Highwaymen and ourselves as a team of artists who once traveled from town to town sharing our poetry.”

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